April 19, 2007
Albert Einstein might have been the smartest person who lived in the 20th century, although I read somewhere that former President Bill Clinton's IQ is higher. Einstein asked the big questions about atoms and traveling at the speed of light and God and whether the universe makes sense. He came up with some interesting answers.
He thought the most important question facing humanity was this: Is the universe a friendly place? "This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves," he said.
Many are asking themselves a version of this question this week. A college student with handguns kills tens of classmates and professors in a rampage. As with the genocide in Rwanda and the latest one in Sudan, we are left puzzling over how such insults to the sacredness of life keep happening. DC gets mad at God for allowing such anguish to be visited upon people and animals and any living thing. Really mad. Not speaking mad.
Whether we believe the universe is friendly makes all the difference.
Einstein pointed out that if we think the universe is inhospitable, we will do everything we can -- build higher walls and deadlier bombs -- to protect ourselves from the unfriendliness. In the United States, each person is entitled to carry his or her own weapon of mass destruction in the name of combatting fears. It's called a handgun.
Perhaps the universe is neither unfriendly nor friendly. In that case, Einstein said, God is merely playing dice and we are at the mercy of the randomness of each roll. God is a gambler with nothing to win or lose.
The third choice is that the universe is a friendly place after all. That we are here for a purpose and that whatever we do has meaning. That creates an entirely different view of the world. If we choose to believe in a friendly universe, then we believe that we are part of rather than separate from everything else in that universe. If that is our belief, Einstein said, we will use our gifts to understand the universe. He believed that "power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
The tragedy at Virginia Tech will reinforce some people's belief that the world is dangerous. They will advocate that students carry guns on campuses. The impulse will be to lock away our cherished children until some sanity returns to the world.
The tragedy will leave others feeling alone and forsaken by a God for whom the flailing human species has no interest.
But if the universe is a friendly place, then we will once again nurse the physical and spiritual wounds of those who have been devastated most by this assault on the human spirit and open our arms to each other instead of folding them across our chests. To do both is not possible.
A Time magazine story about Einstein says he never actually professed to a belief in God but was angered when atheists claimed he didn't believe. He believed in a universal order, in the beauty and harmony of this mysterious creation.
Somehow that harmony and beauty can accommodate great sorrow.
Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.